RedDoor Press, UK, 2021
Cover design Emily Courdelle
The Painting is the sixth of Alison Booth’s novels. It is a fine piece of fiction – historical in that it is set in 1989-1990 and with the World War 11 and post-War era in Hungary at its core.
The centrepiece of the story is a gift from family carried by our heroine Anika to Australia when she manages to begin a new life in Sydney.
When Anika takes the painting of a red haired-woman in a blue dress to the Art Gallery of NSW to be identified and valued, she sets off a train of events leading her back to Budapest – and the reader to the major mystery of the story, the provenance of the painting.
Anika lives in Sydney with her Aunt Tabilla, who fled Europe during the war years and has made a life for herself as a dressmaker, despite her qualifications as an engineer.
Having lost her place in architecture studies in Budapest due to her involvement in student protests, Anika is now again an architecture student and working to support herself in an architecture firm. (Architecture matters in this book and is deftly incorporated into plot and setting thanks to the author’s original qualifications in the field.)
But there is so much more to this novel. In choosing as her main character a young migrant from Hungary, the author has cleverly addressed the predicament of all displaced people, migrant or refugee. She has also delved into the nature of repressive regimes and their capacity to destroy trust in their citizens – in a situation where neighbour informs upon neighbour, there is little to recommend openness.
And so it is that this story of an individual who became a Sydney-sider, and her family, who remained in Budapest, becomes a much bigger one. The subtle layering of the political and the personal make this an intriguing and suspenseful fiction read as well as a study in 20th century European history.
Beyond the enjoyment of a good mystery with suspense sustained to the last moment, this novel offers us beautifully crafted prose and the strong evocation of a sense of place.
There is such a contrast between Sydney: ‘They chose a table where the air smelled of salty and a light breeze, twisting the leaves of a eucalyptus tree, tempered by the heat and filled the sails of a dozen or so yachts that danced across the harbour.’(page 69) and Budapest: ‘The wind, channelled through the narrow streets of Castle Hill, found freedom in the cobbled area around the funicular station. It fretted at the coats of the few hardy people alighting there, tourists mostly, and filled the air with dust.’ It’s delicious writing.
There is also a love story here as Anika slowly grows up before our eyes and, after her trip home to Hungary, receives a good dose of perspective and finds the truth behind some long-hidden family secrets. Multiple migration stories are told in the supporting characters, well enough drawn for us to believe in and care about their stories.
The author also explores the diverse experiences of war, of totalitarianism, of the long aftermath of confinement, brutality and loss. The novel is rich and thought-provoking, skilfully placing us in the skins of others, those who leave and those who stay.
Such is Alison Booth’s skill as a novelist that the stitches never show. We just know at the end that we have been given a perfectly made garment.
Thank you to RedDoor Publishing and Alison Booth for the review copy of The Painting and to Alison for making time to speak with me about the book.